Note: It becomes increasingly difficult to write about my grandpa as his condition worsens. On the one hand, our conversations are limited to a few grunts and a couple painful games of charades, and on the other hand, I just don’t have the energy to come up with anything witty, heartfelt or worthwhile. Over the last month my grandpa’s mobility has diminished, his words have faded and his thoughts have become as jumbled as the newspapers on his coffee table. As a general rule, his condition is expected and we as a family are well prepared, understanding, and armed. As individuals, however, we are weak, confused and hoping for more time.
I take pride in our resilience. It can be found in my mom’s courage when my Grandpa yells, or in my aunt’s “nurse’s face” when she’s forced to help her father put on a clean pair of pants. Dealing with these changes is hard, and preparing for the ultimate change, even harder. I have an entertaining story up my sleeve somewhere. It involves shaving cream, and window escapes. But today, that’s not the one I feel like telling.
So this note, is just that.
Note: I am trying to deal.
Note: It is hard. It is sad.
And Note: In case you want to avoid it, this isn’t one with shaving cream and window escapes.
Grandpa has taken to falling. I joked with him, as I pulled the end table off his right arm and collected him out of the Christmas tree that he does it for the attention. He laughed at me and climbed onto the couch.
“Please Grandpa. Stay here.” I begged, holding his hands in my lap and forcing him to look me in the face. I rubbed his chest, trying to slow his breathing. “I’ll always help you up if you need. Please, you have to let me help you.”
He looked at me sadly. I new the fall had to have hurt, though maybe more his pride than anything else.
The next day he seemed agitated by my presence. I assumed he was embarrassed, but we haven’t had the conversation directly. He waved me off when I tried to help him from the couch, ignored the lunch I placed in front of him and continually tried to leave whichever room I was in.
He wandered into the kitchen away from me and I let him open the front door, but stopped him as he ran into the screen.
“If you want to go outside Grandpa, we have to put on some shoes.”
He stared at me blankly and ran once more into the screen door, reminding me of those strange birds that continually fly at their reflections in the window. I picked up a shoe and waved it in his face.
“Shoes!” I shouted.
He pulled out a chair and sat down.
I crouched down on the floor and shoved his left foot into a shoe. The right foot, the side that is effected most by the tumor, was more difficult. He handed me a shoe horn. I looked at it, turning it over in my hands carefully but couldn’t figure out how it worked. Grumbling, he put it back on the table and we squeezed his foot into his shoe the old fashioned way. After I wrapped him in a coat, tied a scarf around his neck and found a hat, we tackled the step.
It’s just one step, but it’s a big one. Brick and menacing. It might as well be a cliff the way it hangs outside his front door and prevents anyone who is walking impaired from proceeding. After a waltz of teetering and pausing, shifting and supporting, guiding and finally stepping, we were on the driveway. Once outside he scooted along quickly, leaning heavily on my arm and dragging his right foot.
“It’s beautiful outside, isn’t it?” I breathed deeply. “Fall smells like leaves, doesn’t it?”
He stopped, looked down at me and shook his head. “I guess we aren’t talking.” I mumbled.
We continued about three houses down in silence. Me grimacing beneath his 6 foot frame, Grandpa hobbling like a witch in a fairy tale and ignoring my attempts at conversation. On the third house he stopped, using my arm as a tether, he turned like a horse in a pony ride until he was facing back towards home.
After this hour and a half ordeal, I sighed as a slumped down in the chair across from him, preparing to reverse the shoes, coat, scarf and hat. He shook his head and began to stand. Before he could fall, once again, into the Christmas tree I grabbed his elbow, gripping tighter as he tried to shake me off.
“Grandpa.” I said, determined to keep my hold.
“Nonono.” He shook my arm.
“Bob. STOP THAT.” I stared into his face.
He looked down at me.
“Grandpa.” I was quieter now. “You have to let me help you. Please.”
He sat back down, looking away from me in defiance.
I don’t know what came over me. I wasn’t annoyed, or agitated with his behavior, but wasn’t going to settle for it.
“Get up.” I demanded. “We aren’t doing this.” I took hold of his arm and helped him off the couch. It’s the worst kind of couch for someone who has difficulty standing. When you sit in it, you sink into it like water, the leather cushions sliding against each other until you end up awkwardly squeezed into a crack between two of them.
After a bit of a struggle, I guided him down the hall to the porch. Flipping on the space heater, I settled him into a chair. He looked at me, pouting, as I rifled through his box of tapes.
“Now, I know it’s hard.” I told him, “But you’re just going to have enjoy yourself today.”
I pulled out a tape labeled “Jazz #52”. For as long as I can remember, my grandpa has been taping music from the radio and those free music stations on T.V. I slid it into the tape deck and reverted back to 7th grade as I figured out how to rewind an audio cassette.
Finally, the saxophone began to echo off the walls, as high as the volume would allow, rattling the windows and vibrating under my feet. My grandpa mistakenly threw me a lopsided smile, forgetting for a brief second that he was trying to make me leave.
“There.” I thought. “Bliss.”
Not tempting fate, I returned a quick smile and turned away, the closest thing to privacy I was going to allow on this particularly wobbly day.
We sat like that for awhile. He rocked in the wicker chair and I stared out the window at the leaves blowing around the yard, thinking.
I found my mind wandering back to a couple of years ago when I taught a session to a group of 5th graders who were dealing with a death of a classmate. As part of the therapy, we watched a clip from Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, a movie about an eccentric toy store owner who has decided it is his time to pass. “I’m leaving.” Mr. Magorium says to his accountant. “The store?” His accountant asks. “The world.” Mr. Magorium replies and then continues, matter of factly, “You see these shoes? I found these in a tiny little shop in Tuscany and fell in love with them so entirely I bought enough to last my *whole life*….These are my last pair.” The kids responded well to the clip, gathering insight from each other about what Mr. Magorium meant about his last pair of shoes. They began to share their personal stories. They sat together, hugged one another, and cried over their loss, finding comfort in this story of a fictional man, just barely tangent to their own lives. (A very poor YouTube video of this clip can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKj7i7RprqQ )
The sun was beating through the window, warming my arms. It’s a wonder, I thought to myself, the things that help us understand. Our lives are littered with personal examples of beauty and truth, but we continually turn to these outside sources to make sense of them all. And I’ve noticed that we humans particularly like to use texts to verbalize what our hearts can’t turn to words. Christians turn to scripture when they need guidance. Teenagers turn to lyrics when they are heartbroken. Recently single moms turn to the Oprah Winfrey book list (or the nutritional facts on a bottle of wine) when they need hope. The words of someone else always find a way to say it right.
A quiet melody brought me back to reality, barely audible over the blare of the jazz tape. I turned and smiled, with tears and with acceptance. The words of someone else making sense of what I saw.
It was quiet, but it was in tune. My grandpa sat, humming along to the sounds of Coltrane with his eyes closed, happily tapping his last pair of shoes on the floor.